Regulation: Transformative Works in Fandom and Archive of Our Own

Regulation: Transformative Works in Fandom and Archive of Our Own

Transformative works, works that make use of the transformative clause in fair use copyright, are often what make fandom spaces, truly, fandom. When fans engage in content, it’s often by making new content that builds onto the source material. From video edits, meta essays, to fanfiction, fans are known to create new content amongst themselves. The Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) is a non-profit, notably “fan-run,” dedicated to preserving these works: fanworks. One of their projects contributing to this preservation is their website Archive of Our Own, colloquially referred to as AO3. This website is meant to be an archive particularly for fanfiction, which is considered any fiction written by a fan of, and featuring characters from, a particular source media (i.e., books, movies, shows). This type of fan culture is hardly new, with AO3 forming its online presence back in 2009.

However, regulation of fanworks can and have quickly become complicated legally due to their derivative nature. As Gita Jackson states it in her article on Kotaku, “For a time, in certain fandoms, writing fanfiction could get you a letter from a lawyer.” She explains that, despite derivative and transformative works fall under fair use of copyright, it naturally exists in a “sketchy legal space,” especially as the internet blurs the lines between consumer and creator, particularly in fandom. Many creators have asserted their belief that fanfiction doesn’t fall in that category. An infamous example is Anne Rice, known for her vampire novels. She made her distaste for fanfiction known as early as 1995 and then once again in 2000 on her mailing list where she banned all fanfiction in its entirety. However, as fandom became more visible through the internet and becoming mainstream for media, things slowly changed. With this shift, having a negative stance on fanworks as the creator can usually then have a negative impact on the work and in turn, its fandom. It wasn’t obvious perhaps back in Anne Rice’s days, but it is now. Evidence of this is clear, for example, as one fan explains on Twitter: “While author Anne Rice was an icon in horror fantasy, what I actually remember her for is destroying innocent fanfiction authors. She was relentless and cruel, and one of the many reasons a place like The Archive of Our Own became necessary for Fandom.”

OTW itself states that “believes that fanworks are creative and transformative, core fair uses, and will therefore be proactive in protecting and defending fanworks from commercial exploitation and legal challenge.” They offer legal advocacy on their website.

Inside AO3 itself, it is extremely regulated well in certain aspects for ease of use by both authors and readers. However, they have very loose content policy, citing the fact that the site is in beta for the reason of its general Terms of Service and policies. Generally, if there is no harassment happening, users can post any type of content, whether it be explicit or not. This is in hopes of having anyone who wishes to use AO3, soft or hard authors, be able to post their works. It also allows for readers to come to the site and be able to easily find any type of fanfiction they want to read, regardless of how questionable. Of course, as its domain is in the U.S., it follows U.S. law regarding being at least 13 to make an account and at least 18 to read works not rated or rated Mature or Explicit. This type of age requirement, like most adult sites, is solely based on an honor system. This makes it incredibly easy to access, which can be great for ease of use, but also signals that minors can also easily access fanfiction with the improper rating and content for them.

an example of the warning on not rated, mature, or explicit works. via ao3

AO3 is also, notably, invite-only if you’d like to make an account. OTW explains: “We’re using the invitation system so that Archive of Our Own (AO3) can grow in a controlled manner. We need to add new users gradually so that our account numbers don’t grow beyond what our hardware, bandwidth, and Support team can cope with. This helps us ensure that everyone using the AO3 gets the best possible experience.” This also inadvertently avoids the create of bots or spam accounts, since users must intentionally create accounts with real e-mail addresses. An aspiring user can get an invitation via their automated queue, or an existing user. These days, it takes about a week to get your invitation from the queue. When I created my account back in 2018, the queue could take up to a month.

As of this post, OTW is sending 4,000 invitations a day and have 26,383 e-mails on the waiting list. Despite the wait, this generally makes AO3 a more curated space where the users who are there really want to be there. What makes AO3 different from other invitation sites that end up feeling overly exclusive is that, even if you’re not an account user, you can still freely access all the content on AO3. The permissions you receive with an account is mostly to post, bookmark, leave kudos on (like “liking”), or comment on fanfiction. Users who want to simply read need no account. This creates a perfect mix of accessible environment for readers, and a soft, controlled way to gain real users without being too overbearing.

One of the biggest ways AO3 regulates its site is, not limiting content as we see in their content policy, but rather tagging the type of content posted is. AO3 is known for having one of the most comprehensive tagging systems in a fandom space, with other sites like having no tagging system at all and Wattpad having a more generalized system. Tagging your fanfiction is required on AO3; your fanfiction can be reported for being incorrectly tagged, with consequences depending on how incorrectly it was tagged, e.g., rating an explicit fanfiction incorrectly has worse consequences than incorrectly tagging a fandom. This aspect of AO3 is so important to them, they have a committee specifically regarding “wrangling tags.”  There are 7 types of tags: Rating, Archive Warnings, Category, Fandom, Relationships, Characters, and Additional (or Freeform) tags. Each work must at least have the first six tags. An author must first rate their fanfiction, with the ratings being Not Rated, General Audiences (G), Teen and Up Audiences (T), Mature (M), and Explicit (E). Then, AO3 requires authors warn (or explicitly choose not to) for a short list of common fanfiction warnings that include Graphic Depictions of Violence, Major Character Death, Rape/Non-Con, or Underage. The next tag, Category, indicates what types of romantic and/or sexual relationships are depicted: F/F, F/M, Gen (none), M/M, Multi, or Other.

an example of how fanfiction is tagged. via rosesggu on ao3

The rest of the tag types are easier to understand, where you must tag the fandom the work is in, the characters, the relationships, and any other additional tags you may choose to add. For relationship tags, authors must use the / and & characters purposefully, with / indicating a romantic or sexual relationship (e.g. James T. Kirk/Spock) and & indicating a platonic relationship (e.g. Peter Parker & Shuri). Additional or Freeform tags often indicate more detail specific to the fanfiction as a body of work (such as the popular tag “no beta we die like men” indicating the work was not beta read) or the story’s universe (such as “Autistic Steven Grant”) indicating in the work the character Steven Grant has autism unlike in the source material, where he does not.) This extremely detailed tagging system allows for readers to know exactly what they are going to read beforehand and allow for easy navigation and filtering of the works on AO3. It also prevents authors from posting fanfiction without thinking, as they must purposefully tag what type of fiction it contains. This can be very important when avoiding triggering topics such as noted in the Archive Warnings, but also adds small convivences like filtering out other less intense tags. It is, in fact, what the site is known among fans for.

Archive of Our Own, while loosely regulated content and account wise, strictly regulates the information available to users on the works hosted. This allows for an accessible and easy to use website all around and avoids an “exclusive” feeling while keeping things somewhat regulated inside itself and allowing users to pick and avoid specific works.


Gosh Darnit of the New Jersey Darnits. “While Author Anne Rice Was an Icon in Horror Fantasy, What I Actually Remember Her for Is Destorying Innocent Fanfiction Authors. She Was Relentless and Cruel, and One of the Many Reasons a Place like the Archive of Our Own Became Necessary for Fandom.” Twitter. Twitter, December 12, 2021.

Jackson, Gita. “It Used to Be Perilous to Write Fanfiction.” Kotaku. Kotaku, May 16, 2018.

“Legal Advocacy.” Organization for Transformative Works. Accessed October 6, 2022.

“Mailing List FAQs.” anne rice. Accessed October 6, 2022.

“Meta.” Fanlore. Accessed October 6, 2022.

Organization for Transformative Works. “Invitation Requests.” Archive of Our Own. Accessed October 6, 2022.

Organization for Transformative Works. “IV. Content and Abuse Policies.” Archive of Our Own. Accessed October 6, 2022.

Organization for Transformative Works. “What Are the Different Types of Tags?” Tags FAQ | Archive of Our Own. Accessed October 6, 2022.

Organization for Transformative Works. “Why Can’t I Create an Account without an Invitation?” Invitations FAQ | Archive of Our Own. Accessed October 6, 2022.

Organization for Transformative Works. “Works in Autistic Steven Grant (Marvel).” Archive of Our Own. Accessed October 6, 2022.

Organization for Transformative Works. “Works in James T. Kirk/Spock.” Archive of Our Own. Accessed October 6, 2022.*d*%20Kirk*s*Spock/works.

Organization for Transformative Works. “Works in Not Beta Read.” Archive of Our Own. Accessed October 6, 2022.

Organization for Transformative Works. “Works in Peter Parker & Shuri.” Archive of Our Own. Accessed October 6, 2022.*a*%20Shuri/works.

“OTW Tag Wrangling.” Twitter. Twitter. Accessed October 6, 2022.

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